In addition to the widespread deaths and illnesses directly attributable to the coronavirus, the COVID-19 pandemic is having deep economic impacts that have spurred growing levels of food insecurity. Recent data from the Census Bureau indicates that 45% of adults reported their households did not always have enough of the type of food wanted during the week ending July 21. More than one in ten (12%) reported sometimes or often not having enough food to eat, and this rate rose to 21% among households earning less than $50,000 per year. As the health insurance program for low-income children and many adults, Medicaid reaches many people who may be facing food insecurity and could be a potential vehicle to address this growing problem, especially because of the strong association between food security and health. This brief provides an overview of food insecurity among Medicaid enrollees during the COVID-19 pandemic, examines participation in federal nutrition assistance programs by Medicaid enrollees, and identifies potential actions to address food insecurity among Medicaid enrollees as needs grow in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It finds:
Recent data indicates that access to food is a challenge for many Medicaid enrollees during the pandemic. Among Medicaid adults, 20% reported food insufficiency (sometimes or often not having enough to eat) in the week ending March 13, 2020, and 23% reported food insufficiency in the week ending July 21, 2020. Problems accessing food are persistent, with the majority (65%) of Medicaid enrollees reporting food insufficiency in March also doing so in July.
Despite significant overlap between program income eligibility limits, less than half (47%) of all Medicaid enrollees were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2018. Similarly, only about half (54%) of young children (below age five) enrolled in Medicaid were enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in 2018. Recent data on food insufficiency during the pandemic shows that few (24%) Medicaid adults who said their household sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the past week reported their households receiving free groceries or meals, with most of those who did report doing so saying they were through a food pantry or bank. In mid-July 2020, half (50%) of Medicaid adults reporting food insufficiency said they were not at all confident their household would be able to afford the kinds of foods they need over the next month.
At this time of heightened need, Medicaid can play a role in connecting people to nutrition assistance programs by building on initiatives that were underway prior to the pandemic. Medicaid programs can coordinate eligibility and enrollment systems and processes with nutrition assistance programs. They can also help connect enrollees with food resources more directly, such as by screening enrollees for food needs and directing them to community resources.